In elite theory as developed by political scientists like Michael Parenti, all sufficiently large social groups will have some kind of elite group within them that actively participates in the group's political dynamics. When a group is arbitrarily excluded from the larger society, such as in the case of the racism that was widespread in the United States prior to the success of the American Civil Rights Movement, then elite members of the excluded group may form a counter-elite to fight for their group's interests (although they may be fighting for those interests only to the extent they mesh with the counter-elite's interests). Of course, the dominant elite can neutralize the counter-elite through the classic divide-and-conquer strategy of admitting key members of the counter-elite into the elite. Another popular tactic is to assassinate the counter-elite. Without their leaders the downtrodden revert to helplessness. It has been argued[who?] that certain Black civil rights leaders have been killed to prevent common Blacks from demanding reparations for slavery, etc.
Elitism usually draws envy and resentment from the lower classes and the counter-elite. There are cases where elites arguably use this resentment of an elite to maintain their position. This is very criticized from the Communist point of view.
In religion, the Latin form "elect" is preferred over the French form "elite" in discussing Cathar or Calvinist theology, for examples, and the social structure that is theologically driven. Other religious groups may use expressions like "the saints" to describe the elect.
Perhaps the most globally recognized of all religious elite reside in Rome: the Pope and the Vatican Assembly. While it is true that the Pope is elected by the college of Cardinals, the cardinals who vote for him are appointed by prior papal decrees. The Pope is himself chosen from among the college of Cardinals. Once elected, the Pope is in "office" for the remainder of his life.
Another example is found in the Biblical Book of Acts: it is written that the Apostles founded theocratic communes with themselves as leaders. Commoners were expected to legally hand over their possessions to the theocrats, or even to sell their belongings to a third party and give the pecuniary value to the leaders.
Some elite groups speak a language that is not shared by the commonality: in Tsarist Russia and in Vietnam, the elite spoke French, in the Philippines the elite spoke, and in many cases still speak, Spanish. In Plantagenet England, the elite spoke Anglo-Norman, while Finland was ruled by a Swedish-speaking elite up to the beginning of the 20th century and in Ptolemaic Egypt the elite spoke Koine Greek. In ancient India, Sanskrit was spoken by the elite class. (See linguistic imperialism.) Elites establish correct usage for the language when they share one with the commonality. Elite usage is reflected in "prescriptive" dictionaries; common usage is reflected in "descriptive" dictionaries. Elites establish cultural canons, which are more widely agreed-upon within the elite and more generally ignored or resented among the non-elite. In the 1950s, the British elite spoke what linguists of the time called U English or Received Standard English (RSE). It can be argued that English is becoming the global elitist language since understanding it opens the door to many lucrative jobs in poor nations.
[original research?] Elite advantages are the usual ones of a dominant social class: easier access to capital and political power, more rigorous education largely free of indoctrination, resulting in cultural influence and leadership.
Elites may justify their existence based on claims of inherited position; with the rise in the authority of science, certain 19th and 20th century elites have embraced pseudoscientific justifications of genetic or racial superiority. In Nazi Germany, genetic superiority was used as the basis of an "Aryan" elite. Elite classes headed by monarchies have traditionally employed religious sanctions for their position.
Meritocracy is a facet of society that tries to promote merit as a route to the elite. Societies such as that of the United States have it in their culture to promote such a facet [see Horatio Alger]. However, while it tends to be imperfect it sheds light as to what many believe to be the "ideal" elite: an elite that is porous and whose members have earned their position as society's top class.
Elites are educated to govern. While common public education is often designed to educate the general population to produce knowledgeable and skilled citizens, the elite approach to education is often presented at a more intellectual and demanding level, and is geared to produce leaders of a sort. It can be idealized as an education geared to producing an individual capable of thinking at an intellectual level more advanced than the general population, consisting of diverse philosophical ideals and theories to enable the elite to logically evaluate situations.
However in some systems, such as that of the Scholar-bureaucrats that administered China for 1300 years, elite education is used to select and skim off the most able students regardless of class or financial background. To pass these Imperial examinations, students had to be versed in the Confucian classics and neo-Confucian commentaries, creating a cohesive and socially homogeneous scholar-gentry. This co-opted into its service those who would have potentially been the most dangerous to the state and left would be malcontents either leaderless or those it did have uneducated. As an avenue to political power, the examination system became increasingly corrupted, with political connections and loyalty to the regime becoming as important as outright ability. The cultural legacy of this policy can still be found in the selection for the elite Chinese Universities to this day. Elite universities, through a process of indoctrination of a common heritage, ethos and promise of preferred advancement, create a loyal administrative/ruling elite for the service of the state. Such a system of selection for elite education can be seen in the Western tradition as well, for example in France's Grandes écoles.
A military elite is a unit of soldiers or recruits picked for their competence and put in a special elite unit. Elite units enjoy some benefits as compared to other units, at least in the form of higher status, but often also higher pay and better equipment. Napoleon's Imperial Guard would be a good example. Note that the word elite in the military sense is fundamentally different from most other uses of the term. A social or societal elite has usually not been picked by anyone except themselves and are not necessarily part of the elite because of exceptional competence or intellect.